Sunday, April 12, 2015

The community of reconciliation

Our life in Christ, the life of the church, begins with what the Collect for this Sunday calls “the Paschal mystery.”  Which is shorthand for what the passion, and death, and resurrection of Jesus reveals about God.  This revelation is entirely consistent with the mission of Jesus’ life, his teachings and healings and all that he did in Galilee, and in Jerusalem, and everywhere in between.  But the Paschal mystery is how the disciples of Jesus finally understood what he was really all about.   It’s how they knew that he really was the Messiah, The One Anointed by the Spirit to deliver them from bondage and reconcile them to God.  The Paschal mystery was their Passover, an experience of liberation greater even than the deliverance of their ancestors from slavery in Egypt in the Passover of long ago. 
This sounds grand, and it would, in time, prove to have world-shaking implications.  But we have to remember that for all its promising beginnings, the mission of Jesus was, in worldly terms, a total failure.  As a political revolution or a social movement, or even a religious revival, it was a complete bust.  And everyone who thought of it in those terms was disappointed.  They crossed him off the list of potential messiahs and moved on to look for the next likely candidate.  One of his own disciples became aware (we don’t know exactly when) that something was seriously wrong with Jesus’ plan.  His name was Judas, and he decided to trade on his inside information, and so to come out on top when the stuff hit the fan.
The stories say that, later, he regretted his betrayal and took his own life in despair.  And the rest of Jesus’ inner circle must have felt something similar.  Some of them, at least, shared the hopes of the crowd that waved their branches of palm on that day Jesus that rode into Jerusalem and shouted “Hosanna!  Blessed is the Kingdom of our father David that is coming!  Hosanna in the highest!”  So it must have been a shock to learn how badly those hopes had been misplaced.  But, as with Judas, their pain went deeper than mere disillusionment.  It was tinged with personal betrayal.  They may not have led the authorities to the place where Jesus was praying, or singled him out with a kiss, but neither did they stand by him as he was led away to his death.  They abandoned him and fled.
And in the long hours of that grim Friday and desolate Saturday, who can say what dark thoughts ran through their fearful and grief-stricken minds?  As they replayed their recent words and deeds again and again, remembering the bold declarations of loyalty they’d made, and how they’d proved false, what rationalizations and self-justifications did they make to explain?  What recriminations and resentments did they lodge secretly in their hearts, against each other and even against their disgraced master?  
Because for them, the mission of Jesus was personal.  They had not come looking for him, drawn by rumors of a charismatic young rabbi who could heal with a touch of his hand.  He had come looking for them, and they’d left home and family and livelihood in response to his call.     They had not jumped on the bandwagon in the last big journey to Jerusalem, but had been on the road with him all over Galilee, from Tyre and Sidon to the Decapolis and up to Caesarea Philippi.  They’d gone across the sea with him on a stormy night, and to a field at sundown miles from nowhere with a hungry crowd.  They’d gone out to heal the sick and drive out demons in his name, and had preached the coming of the Kingdom of God.
And they’d grown in the process, grown in ways they’d never known they could.  They’d felt important, like their lives mattered for something and that they could make a difference in the world.  They’d learned so much about what God could do if you really had faith, and about what people could be if you treated them with honor and love, like brothers and sisters of a single family.  They’d come to love and depend on each other, and even though they’d had their petty rivalries and jealousies, Jesus had helped them see that with prayer and humility, with patience and forgiveness, they could move through their conflicts to deeper intimacy and trust.
They’d seen a glorious vision of the world as it could be, and they’d imagined that if Jesus was in charge, if they were in charge with him, that vision could come true, not in some distant future time, but here and now.  But in the sleepless hours of those nights in Jerusalem that vision mocked them.  Another had taken its place, and suffocated them with fear—a vision of tramping boots in the narrow street, of fists hammering at the door, of torches and swords, and grasping hands, the cries of an angry mob, the cruel and contemptuous faces of the Gentiles, the scourge, the nails, the agony of hanging from the tree.  How could Jesus have led them there, and left them alone with no hope and no plan, in this city of his enemies?  With only each other for comfort, the very sight of whom was a reminder of how they’d been fooled, and how he had failed?

But still they loved him, and in the end it was love that prevailed.  Love sent Joseph to Pilate to ask for his body, and wrapped it in linen and laid it in his tomb.  Love emboldened the women to keep watch at the cross from afar, and they saw where the body was laid.  In love Mary Magdalene went before dawn on the first day of the week, to stand at the tomb and weep.  It was with the eyes of love that she saw the stone was rolled away.  She ran to Peter and John, whose hearts leaped in love as they raced to the garden and saw that the tomb was empty.  And Jesus came to Mary and spoke her name in love, and she recognized her Teacher.
That night love came through the doors that fear had barred.  He came, not as an avenging ghost, but with the Spirit of peace and forgiveness.  He showed them the marks of his wounds, as if to say, “Yes, it is true.  This world is as you left it when you set out to follow me—estranged from God; trapped in its nightmare of terror and ignorance, its worship of gold, and iron and blood.  But I breathe on you so you will know that the life that flows from love and truth is more real than the works of death.  That life is my life; I gave myself to it completely, and now it lives in me completely, and I can never die. 
It was that life you recognized when we first met.  It was what led you to follow me.  And the journey we began in that moment is not over; the dream we had of a world set free is not false; today it starts to wake the world.  I am with you now more closely than I could be before: I am peace in your heart; I am your love for God and God’s love for you.  And you must be to each other as I was to you, and you were to me, because you are my Body.”

And so they could begin at once to live the new life he’d given them, Jesus chose a time to visit when Thomas wasn’t there.  For a week the disciples celebrated their vindication, and rejoiced at their liberation, praising the goodness and the mercy of God, with one in their midst who refused to believe.  Here is where the church could have fallen apart before it ever got out of the gate.  They could have excluded Thomas for not being one of the elect.  Thomas could have gone away in frustration with this Jesus who had not shown himself to him, and disgust with these crazy people and their outlandish tale.
This is a story for us, about us.  Which of us doesn’t know what it’s like to be Thomas, sitting in church feeling like we’re on the outside looking in?  But this is a story about the birth of a community of reconciliation. It is not constituted by exclusion, or by an exaggerated sense of its own virtue and goodness.  It lives, instead, by the memory of wounds, of loss restored and guilt forgiven.  By the grace of their encounter with the risen Lord, the disciples would not treat Thomas as less than themselves.  And Thomas could see that there was something about them that had changed, something that reminded him of Jesus, and so he stuck around.  He was still there when another Sunday came, when the peace of the risen Lord came among them again, and doubting Thomas put his hand in the wounds of the living God.         

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Not all there is to the egg

As religious holidays go, Easter is a bit of a challenge.  People often compare it to Christmas, and—let’s face it—Christmas wins.  Because Christmas is easy to understand.  It is about the birth of a child, and that needs no explanation.  All of us remember what it was like to be a child, and we know what it is like to hold a child.  You can make a picture of a baby, and put a mother and father in the picture, with a donkey and cow, and maybe a star or an angel, and you can write “Merry Christmas!” on it and send it to a friend.  And even if that friend is not a Christian, they can admire the pretty picture, and understand what it is about, and why it makes you happy.

But Easter is different.  The story of Easter begins at a tomb, and who wants to think about a tomb?  Who wants to draw that on a card and send it to a friend?  And that tomb is empty, because the man who was dead in the tomb came out, and now he is alive.  So you could send a picture of the man, but while the baby in the manger is sweet and lovable, the living man of Easter is controversial.  He always was—that’s why he ended up in tomb in the first place. 
And I think that even for us who are attracted to that man, who try to believe in the things he died for, and are glad to hear he is alive, it is still hard to know exactly how to talk about it.  Easter is about finding that the house of death, that we thought was full, is actually empty, and how do you talk about emptiness? It’s about a man whose life is not closed off, but open and infinite.  And how do you make a picture of infinite openness?  If he is alive he has a future, and how do you celebrate what you don’t yet know? 
One way to talk about it is in terms of freedom.  Easter comes from Passover, the ancient Jewish festival of Spring, but also of freedom; and the Jewish story of freedom begins with a voice that speaks to Moses out of a bush that burns but is not consumed.  And the voice tells Moses its name, a name you can’t pronounce, a name that means “I will be who I will be.”  The body of Jesus that rose from the tomb is like that bush and that voice.  It lives and lives and is never used up.  Its future is open and free.       
Or you can think about Easter as transformation, like that ancient image of the egg.  The egg, that is so perfect and complete.  It is closed, and contains within itself everything that is needed, so it is hard to imagine it ever changing at all.  So it is only when something stirs unexpectedly inside the egg, and suddenly a tiny beak starts pecking through, that we realize that the egg is not all there is to the egg. It only exists for the sake of the new thing that breaks the shell and bursts out, fluffy and yellow and peeping, and totally alive.  
Yesterday I thought of another image for Easter, of freedom and transformation, which is the universe.  People used to think that the physical universe was closed, like an egg.  But in recent times we have learned that the universe is actually expanding in all directions.  Some of the scientists who study these things say that it will keep expanding and expanding forever, and some say that, as it does, the fires of the universe will get colder and colder until they go out, one by one.  To them the universe is a tomb.  But no one really knows, and I prefer to think the expansion is a sign that the universe is open.  It is free.  And maybe it really is an egg, hatching something unexpected, entirely new.

But none of these images of Easter can really take the place of the stories of Jesus’ resurrection.  They are stories of freedom, because the thing that was supposed to be closed forever is open.  Even Death can’t hold Jesus captive, thanks to the freedom of God.   And they are stories of transformation.  Mary Magdalene doesn’t know that it’s Jesus at first.  She thinks it’s the gardener, because even though it’s definitely him, he’s not the same.  And when she recognizes him, she tries to hold him, but she can’t, because he is still on his way.
And that’s really the whole point, isn’t it?--that Jesus is not a character in a story that once was written in a book and now is over.  We don’t close the book and say, “okay, that was a nice story—now what?”  We keep the book open because Jesus is the “now what?”  And this resurrection story tells us what that means.  Because the climax of the story, the moment when Mary sees the risen Lord, comes after Jesus calls her by her name.  The freedom and transformation of the resurrection is not just something that happened to Jesus—it’s something that happened for us.  It is not the story of someone else’s past—it is the story of our future, the future we all have together in God.
We Christians sometimes talk about this future as if it will come from outside of us, as if Jesus is some kind of superweapon who will come down from heaven and blow everything way.  But the Jesus of the Easter Gospel is a future that opens out from within and among us.  He hatches out of our human story like a chick out of an egg.  We don’t recognize him, because we keep looking for the corpse that should be in the tomb.  But all the while he is alive and calling us by name.
When Mary hears her name and sees that it is Jesus, she cries out “Teacher!”  And that is what he is.  It is his voice speaking in our hearts that tells us we are not captive to the mistakes we have made, or our bad habits, or our worn out old images of ourselves, but in every moment our life is open and we are free.  Our teacher is calling us to follow his path of transformation, a journey that embraces our gifts and our weaknesses, our struggles and our victories, our doubts and our faith, our sorrows as well as our joys.  It even embraces death, the one aspect of our future we think we know with certainty.  But his life swallows death, and clothes our mortal bodies with the glory of God.   
And because it is the same Christ who is calling each and every one, what is coming into being in us is not just a new person.  It is a new world—a world from which the curse of destruction and the fear of death have been lifted; a world of unity, compassion, and justice, of deep and abiding peace; a world in which the fullness of God’s glory dwells for everyone to see, in all beings, in every cell and molecule, every drop of water and grain of sand.   This inconceivable future comes into the world in a single person, but through his death and resurrection it comes to all of us.  And so this celebration itself is a living symbol of what it celebrates.  If you want to see Christ’s resurrection, look around you.  We act it out in public every Sunday, the eighth day of the week, the first day of a new creation. 
Called by Christ we gather here, each one called by name, and we blend our voices into one song, the song of resurrection.  We open the book, the book that no hate or fear or prejudice can ever close, the book of resurrection.  We hear the living words of Christ, and keep them in our hearts; we proclaim again that these are our words, for our generation, our world, our future.  We bless the bread and wine, the gifts our teacher gave the night before his death, to be the ever-present signs of his coming.  We break and share one imperishable food, we pass one ever-flowing cup.  We take them into our bodies, to become our bodies, the many bodies of the risen Christ.  And in those bodies we go out, as witnesses of resurrection, emissaries, sent to be the freedom and the transformation of the world.   

The witness

The Gospels depict Jesus in a variety of moods.  He can, of course, be gentle and nurturing, as when he says to his disciples, “Let the little children come to me.”  Or he can be angry, as when he says to the Scribes and Pharisees “Woe to you, hypocrites: you shut the door of the Kingdom of Heaven; you do not enter yourselves, and when others try to enter, you stop them.”   But the Jesus that we meet today is the one who suffers.  This afternoon we keep vigil with a suffering Messiah.  We remember his pain, and we seek in some way to share it, by our fasting, by spending these three hours in prayer and meditation on his crucifixion.
But as affecting as the story of his passion and death may be, this is not the sum total of his suffering.  The Servant Songs of Isaiah, one of which we heard read today, have profoundly shaped our experience of Jesus.  They may have formed his understanding of himself.  And they describe the servant of God as one whose vocation it is to suffer.  He is, as an older translation had it, a “man of sorrows; acquainted with grief.”
The sorrows of Jesus did not begin the night he was betrayed and handed over to his enemies.  We keep vigil with Jesus on the cross because his passion is a vigil he kept with us.  But it is the climax of a life-long vigil of compassion, in which he bore with us and our self-inflicted pain, a pain we finally turned against him.  So we acknowledge that the fact that he died in this way is no accident.  It is not a chance misfortune that befell him on the way to his exaltation as King of Kings.  We cannot simply pass it off with a callous remark, as we so often do with the suffering that we encounter every day around and within us, shrugging our shoulders and saying “shit happens.”  Instead, we make a conscious choice to open our eyes and our hearts to the sorrow and pain of Jesus.  We even honor it, venerate it, give thanks for it.  We call this day “Good Friday.”
And that is because we sense that Jesus’ crucifixion tells us something we need to know.  We come to it searching for meaning that we can’t make any other way.  Jesus endured this suffering because he knew something essential about us, and that knowledge, in itself, was already sorrow and pain.  That is why we recount and remember every detail of his betrayal and desertion by his friends, his anguished prayer in the garden, his arrest and interrogation, the mockery, the false accusations, the scourge and crown of thorns, the journey to the cross, and his agony upon it—not in order to add more and more to the account of his suffering, but because at each one of these moments his heart was breaking, not only for himself, but for us. 
The extreme physical brutality of crucifixion, and the sheer volume of pain that Jesus had to endure, is often held up before us as the measure of his love.   But these things in themselves have no redemptive meaning.  They are, in fact, business as usual in the long nightmare of history.  But what makes the cross of Christ truly sacrificial is that he accepted it willingly, and that in that acceptance he was free.  “Sacrifice” means to make sacred, and Jesus offered his suffering to God in the faith that God would make it sacred, for our sake, if not for his.  Because the God of Jesus is a God who sets his children free. 
And we are not free.  We are not free in relation to our suffering, and because of this we are not free at all.  Much as we might pretend otherwise, with our possessions and technology, with our power to mold the world to our convenience; much as we might entertain and distract and anesthetize ourselves by our endless consumption of the products of a culture of denial; much as we might seek the approval of others, or at least our selves, with flattery and conformity and productivity, all of it is so much effort wasted, trying but ultimately failing to avoid the truth that we are weak.  We are hurt.  We are lonely and dissatisfied.  We are going to die.
Jesus understood this about us.  He talked about a man who built his house on sand, and how the rain fell, and the floods rose, and the gales blew against that house, and how great was its fall.  He talked about the one who had a rich harvest and tore down his barns to build bigger ones, not knowing that the very same night his life would be taken from him.  He tried to teach us that the real measure of our worth is not our strength and self-reliance, our imperviousness to the afflictions that mar the happiness of lesser folk, or how well-defended we are from their envy and hate and slander; but it lies in our capacity to be affected, to love and be loved.  He tried to show us that our true and lasting value is in the eyes of God.
A lot of people didn’t want to hear this.  As a general rule, the more well-off and prestigious they were, the less interested they were.  Jesus captures this himself when he reports the contempt of those who say, “this man is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”  So add to his sorrow at seeing men and women trapped in useless vanity, the pain of their rejection and hostility.  And this enmity reveals a deeper and still more painful truth about us.  Because we are not in denial only about our own pain, but also of the pain we inflict on others, and the toll it takes on our own souls.
This is more than personal.  The fear and aggression that come from bracing against our vulnerability are contagious.  They pass from house to house and generation to generation.  They threaten to dissolve the bonds that hold families and communities together.  And so we develop systems of social and psychological repression, to establish and maintain order.  These systems propagate the myths and rituals that impress deeply on their members the illusion of security and peace.  The fear and aggression are still there, below the level of conscious awareness, but we channel them into organized and sanctioned outlets.  This process operates by a logic which seems self-evident to everyone.  Everyone, that is, except its designated victims, who are the only people who can see how arbitrary and irrational these systems are.
Every society has its victims—its heretics and Jews, Commies, Niggers, Chinks, Gooks, and Redskins, its illegals, Ragheads, junkies, nut jobs, and retards, its faggots and punks, its thugs, bums, and trailer trash, its bitches, sluts and hoes.  It has its rituals of dehumanization in which the suffering and death that haunts us all is meted out in measured doses against the most vulnerable of our neighbors.  The unity that comes from bonding together against a common enemy, the feeling of release that follows the catharsis of sanctioned violence—this is what passes for peace.  And only the victim knows the truth. 
Only the victim really knows how scapegoating, abuse, and lynching dehumanize the perpetrator.   Only the victim, bearing witness to her own inviolable humanity, can break the spell of sanctioned hate and violence.   That is what the word “martyr” means—witness.  A martyr is one who bears witness, in his freely accepted suffering, to the unbreakable truth of our shared humanity, our common identity as children of God.   This is the truth that Jesus received, the truth in which he reached out to the lost, the outcast and afflicted, and welcomed them as sisters and brothers.  This is the saving knowledge that he restored to them when he healed them.  It is the truth he carried with him to Jerusalem and bore witness to on the cross.
This is truth where the deepest well of Jesus’ suffering mingles with the springs of hope and joy, because the witnessing victim is the one who knows it doesn’t have to be this way.  He is the one who sees that acknowledging pain, given and received, is what opens the door to forgiveness, to reconciliation and true peace.  He is the one who can say to the people preparing to destroy him “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”   He cannot force that to happen.  He can only stand fast in his own humanity, and bear his cross.  But he shows us in this way what mere words by themselves cannot convey—the hope that his sufferings are not fruitless and in vain, but are the birth pangs of a new world. 

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.